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Consistency over Intensity

It’s easy in a highly competitive, results-oriented culture to value intensity in exercise.  If an exercise routine isn’t intense or prolonged, sometimes it can feel like it doesn’t have value.  We didn’t burn enough calories, build enough strength, or match our usual time.  Even in yoga, we can feel like we didn’t push ourselves hard enough, or didn’t feel grounded enough, or, if it’s our home routine, we may have pushed ourselves less than we would have in the studio.

I’m guilty of this for sure.  Anything less than a full, 110% routine can feel insufficient.  And while exercise is almost necessarily a matter of exerting effort that pushes the body beyond its usual activity, the extent to which we move beyond our typical activity does not need to be extreme, especially if the more moderate activity is consistent.  Whether we are talking about physical prowess or mental/spiritual focus, there are at least two good reasons to value consistency in practice over intensity.

Less is More

Yoga is ideally a practice of awareness and inquiry.  We learn to hold our limbs in just such a way, to coordinate our breath with movement, and to remain calm and poised, even in a challenging posture.  But if a posture is too challenging or we prolong our exercise beyond the limits of our stamina, our ability to remain aware and mindful declines.  Form becomes harder to maintain, focus drifts, and calmness becomes tension and aversion.  Worse, we can sometimes injure ourselves because we aren’t aware that we’ve reached a breaking point.  A yoga routine that is particularly intense, in other words, can actually detract from the goals of yoga, just as running or lifting weights with poor form can actually stymie an athlete’s progress.

Our yoga teachers are generally good about reminding us to breathe, but are we bringing awareness to our breath so that it is measured, calm, and gentle?  If not, it might be because we are exceeding our capacity for awareness and control.  For that matter, if we are feeling ungrounded and out-of-balance, can we accept that and not try to “force” ourselves to be calm and steady?  Our capacity to be grounded also has limits.  Can we be OK with feeling a bit topsy-turvy, even though we are “supposed to be relaxed”?

It’s a radical notion, but whether it’s the demands we put on ourselves physically or the expectations we have about settling and relaxing, in each case, less is often more.  The drive to advance, succeed, and excel is, in time, far less important than the ability to appreciate what we have, understand what is sustainable, and appreciate our limits in the present moment. This allows us to develop or maintain ourselves in a way that is realistic and sustainable.

Keep the Pot on “Simmer”

One of the other paradoxes about the belief that we must work intensely at yoga (or other forms of exercise) is that we feel that if we don’t have a full hour to practice, or if we are feeling scattered, stressed, or overwhelmed, we shouldn’t even bother with our practice at all.  An “all-or-nothing” mentality can develop and we irrationally deprive ourselves of what’s good because it isn’t ideal.

In reality, it’s far more important to do a short routine–even a couple postures–every day than do one long routine at the end of the week, and it’s better to go to one yoga class a week than attend a weekend retreat once a month. Stressors generally don’t take a day off and being able to mitigate them on a daily basis leads to a better quality of life. More importantly, weaving yoga into your daily life can make the practice easier to devote more time to when things become less hectic.  Like a pot on simmer, the low-level engagement keeps a boiling pot going, and even if it cools a bit, it’s much easier to get it back to a boil if the water is already warm.

Intensity isn’t “Bad,” Inconsistency isn’t “Failure”

Of course, a thorough, intense yoga session can be very rewarding, and it’s deceptively hard to remain consistent.  Even so, it’s good to be able to re-frame our attitudes about exercise so that it can fit into our lives in a more consistent way more of the time, and to not be dismissive of less intense or less focused work.  Modulating intensity to appropriate levels and remaining as consistent as possible optimizes what yoga offers us and allows us to get the most out of our practice over time.

 

Chakra Talk: Guidance Through Inquiry

People who have studied yoga, have connections with new age spirituality, or who are familiar with Indian religious and philosophical traditions have probably heard about chakras before, but for those who haven’t, or who want a brief refresher, here are the basics (a fuller discussion appears here in Yoga Journal):

What are the Chakras?

Chakra is the Sanskrit word for wheel, and they are, for many in the yogic tradition, the crossroads for the main energy pathways in the body, known as the nadis.  These pathways are not considered physical parts of the body, like veins or nerves, but are part of an immaterial, subtle body.  For those who believe in chakras, being healthy is a function of keeping these crossroads clear so that energy can circulate through the body.  Additionally, it is believed that each charka governs a particular physical, emotional, and spiritual sphere, and when the crossroads are blocked partially or completely, those physical, emotional and spiritual areas are negatively affected.  For example, the Nabhi (or Manipura) Chakra, which sits just below the solar plexus, is associated with self-esteem, boundaries, and exerting our will, so problems there would be associated with being a doormat or having trouble achieving goals. In a similar vein, it is thought that exercising and activating that region would not only make the area more supple, but also yield benefits in terms of willpower, boundaries, and self-esteem.

Chakras as Areas of Inquiry

What interests me, personally, about chakras is the way in which I feel each of these areas in my own body.  Whether the Heart Chakra really exists or not, or really governs love, grief, and kindness, it certainly is one of the areas that hurts when I lose a loved one and that feels full and light when I am feeling tenderness or compassion. I imagine that the yogis of the past probably felt these things too, and the cumulative investigation of the yogic tradition has likely yielded insights we can use as guideposts today.

Whether or not that means the yogis were able to identify universal truths about the mind/body, inquiring about the mind/body interrelationship is intrinsically valuable, paying attention to the chakras as areas of interest in this inquiry deepens our practice. Chakras exist as a location of attention and feeling, and part of the yogic tradition is to examine that location so that it may teach us.  This doesn’t necessarily mean accepting the “truth” of them on a dogmatic level, but rather noticing what mind/body sensations and interactions we experience through the chakras. As modern practitioners, we can certainly choose to leave the chakras behind as a vestige of the past, but we risk losing some traditional wisdom, some insight into what yoga has to offer.

Yoga for Cyclists: Thoracic Extension

Athletes of all kinds can benefit from cross training, doing exercise or participating in more than one kind of sport to increase overall performance.  One of the main reasons is that when we participate in an athletic activity, we often engage in repeated movements and rest in particular postures that distribute strain unequally in the body.  On the whole, being active is healthy, but just as a worker in a factory can develop problems from repeated motions, so too can a baseball pitcher develop problems in the rotator cuff from throwing fastballs.

The same thing applies to cyclists, who can develop a variety of postural and physiological issues from being in a cycling position if they don’t work to expand the body’s range of motion, use good posture, and otherwise develop healthy habits to counteract some of the wear that happens when we spend a lot of our time on a bike.  Having talked about this with Tim and Ambrose Ingram of Momentum Bikes, we decided to look at how yoga could help with some of the common injuries, strains, and compensation patterns that cyclists develop as a part of their activity.  In particular, we began by focusing on the “cyclist’s hunch.”

Cyclist’s Hunch

The cyclist’s hunch is that posture we assume whenever we’re on a bike where our shoulders are ahead of our hips.  To be able to see the road, we need to incline the head upward, and this typically leads to a hunch just above the shoulders that can cause strain and leave us handing on our shoulder joints. When we ran our first “Yoga for Cyclists” last Sunday (2/26/17) we focused on the way that cyclists can benefit from extending the upper spine to counteract the cyclist’s hunch, take some of the strain out of the neck, and activate the upper back muscles to protect our shoulder joints.  Going into the class, pretty much everyone defaulted to a cyclist’s hunch when we had them on the stationary bikes (I do too!).  Here’s what that looks like:

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Spine hunched forward, the bend is all happening right above my shoulders

Thoracic Extension

To correct this, we learned how to create extension in the thoracic spine to make the curve in the neck more gradual, engaging the back muscles to hold the head up rather than sagging the shoulders.  This not only places the head closer to the support structure of the body, causing less overall strain, it also distributes the weight of the skull more evenly along the spine so that the vertebrae right above my shoulders no longer bear the majority of the load.

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Thoracic spine extended, the bend is gradual, beginning in the middle of my upper back

While it certainly requires more muscular effort to use the spine this way — I personally couldn’t maintain this extension for the duration of a long bike ride — making the effort for short periods of time will be rewarded by a toning of the muscles that help maintain good posture off of the bike.  A cyclist can maintain this extension throughout the course of a short bike ride, for example, or use it as a way to relieve neck tension every 20 minutes on a longer bike ride.  Either way, working with thoracic extension benefits us while cycling and improves our posture in everyday life.  Given these benefits, Tim, Ambrose, and I are going to continue working together to bring you more classes that synergize yoga with cycling to help yogis and cyclists to be their best selves.

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Working with Thoracic Extension in Projected Lunge

Embodiment

“True meditation is about being fully present with everything that is–including discomfort and challenges. It is not an escape from life.” ~ Craig Hamilton

The same can be said for embodiment. When we get lost in a good book, movie, or binge watching a show we can get so immersed in the world of the fiction that we sometimes forget we even have a body.  When we are working on a project or need to solve a problem by a deadline, we can be so involved that we forget that we can ignore our need to sleep, eat, or move.  When we are worried about the future, we can be uncomfortable even in the most comfortable place.  When we get on Facebook, hours can pass on a Sunday without us so much as noticing.  This quality of transcending, being disconnected and/or unaware of your body is disembodiment.

I don’t think it is necessarily bad or good.  Depending on the quality of the experience, this capacity to ignore the immediacy of our body can be enjoyable or miserable, it can be beneficial or harmful, a prison or an escape.  While disembodiment is not, by itself negative or positive, spending too much time in a disembodied state tends to make it more difficult for us to appreciate the benefits of embodiment — an awareness of the body as it is at this moment.

We can perhaps most appreciate embodiment when we relax into a hot tub, relish a home cooked meal, or embrace a loved one or friend.  When we have no other thoughts than how it feels to be there at that moment, in our bodies, without fear that it will go away or projecting into the past or future, we can see how wonderful it can be to be present in our own bodies.  But even when we aren’t experiencing bodily comfort or pleasure, paying attention to how the body feels can be wholesome, healthy, and calming.  In daily life, simple activities like walking or doing the dishes can be a great alternative to the high stimulation of work and play.

To some extent, the simplicity of embodiment can even be a benefit when we are suffering or our body is feeling discomfort or pain.  While disembodiment is perhaps all we can do to handle situations of extreme pain, one of the ironies of the human mind is that we can actually intensify our own suffering by ruminating on our pain rather than merely experiencing it.  We tend to judge our pain, think about it, worry about whether it will go away, and otherwise give it all kinds of negative thought that actually exacerbates our experience of suffering, mentally, emotionally, or physically.  While it is easier said than done, when we become comfortable simply feeling the body without judgment or additional thought, we can lesson our suffering or even find some contentment when we are in pain.  Though I am certainly a beginner when it comes to embodying this way, I have found that there are moments when I can feel the internal drama of pain dissipating slightly when I am present with it in meditation, yoga or tai chi.

In addition to those practices, one technique to appreciate and practice embodiment is by doing a body scan.  To do a body scan, bring your attention to each part of your body, lingering on each part for a moment and noticing how it feels and accepting it whether it is feeling good, bad, or neutral (or not feeling anything noticeable at all).  You can begin at any part of the body, but I like to begin by noticing the feet, moving up to the ankles, the shins and calves, and so on, up the legs to the torso, down the arms and hands, then going up the neck and to the skull.  Spend time appreciating the details of each region — temperature, pressure, and any other salient feelings — and then move on.  This can be done while sitting in a chair, standing in line someplace, or lying in bed before sleeping at night.  Check in with how you feel before and afterward, you might notice a positive shift even after 5-10 minutes.  It’s rarely profound and earth shaking, but, in my experience, I usually feel better afterward than I did before, especially if I was feeling stressed out beforehand.

The Importance of Grounding

Whether or not they predict the weather, we can learn a lot from a marmot about responding to stress and anxiety. When a groundhog perceives danger, it gets uptight: it tenses and hoists itself up to get a clear lay of the land while its heart beats faster with adrenaline.

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Being uptight makes sense if you need to avoid danger

But when the threat passes, it grounds, settling back down on its haunches, relaxing its posture, softening its gaze, and calming its heartbeat. These outward behaviors are responses to the rodent’s autonomic nervous system, which revs it up in response to threats and relaxes it when it feels safe.

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Being grounded makes sense if you’re already safe

Humans have an autonomic nervous system as well.  Just like the groundhog, when we are feeling anxiety or stress we feel like we are being drawn tightly upward: our shoulders lift, our eyes widen, our jaws clench, and we breathe from the top of our chest.  Being uptight in response to danger evolved in our ancestors because, just like the groundhog, our they needed to be poised in a tense, hyper-responsive state when faced with danger so they could either defend themselves, run for cover, or remain coiled in hiding.

But being constantly tensed and alert uses a lot of energy and puts our body’s self-maintenance on hold, so, like the groundhog, we also evolved to settle down toward the ground when we feel the trouble has passed. Our shoulders loosen downward, our breath comes from deep in the belly, and, if we are really relaxed, we might even feel like our whole bodies release to the ground.  We yield to gravity rather than fighting it.  Feeling connected with the earth, our bodies can return to their everyday restorative functions, including resting, digesting, and procreating.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts people at ease, yielding to gravity.  Almost all the boaters have multiple points of contact with the ground and their eyes have soft gazes.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  While groundhogs, and other animals, are able to transition fluidly from a state of anxiety necessary to their immediate survival to a state of calm that is necessary for their long term health,  many humans are stuck in a low-grade uptight state and have trouble relaxing, largely because our threats are not predators that come and go, but long-term, low-grade fears and challenges. Anxiety and stress about our jobs, our families, our social systems, and the future is certainly legitimate, but the uptight state that anxiety creates in our bodies doesn’t help us address those challenges and actually causes physical problems if we remain in it for long periods of time.  Fortunately, there are techniques that helps us relax us down a bit when we are feeling uptight.

Grounding: Contact & Awareness

One of the basic ways to elicit a relaxation response is by doing what animals in nature do when a threat has passed, and let our weight and our awareness relax to the ground.  We call this grounding, in yoga, tai chi and other mindfulness traditions because it is consciously yielding to gravity rather than remaining uptight and fighting against it.  The recipe here is 1) stable contact with the ground and 2) resting the attention on places your body contacts the ground.  Here are some examples of grounding techniques:

  • Notice all of your points of contact with the ground.  That’s it.  If your mind wanders to other things, that’s OK.  Just bring the attention back to those points of contact.  You can do this almost anywhere and anytime, but some good times to practice are before bed, while standing in line, or while sitting in a waiting room.
  • Imagine that you have roots that grow down into the earth from whatever part of your body is exerting the most pressure on the ground: your feet (if standing), your sit bones (if you are sitting), or your heals, hips, shoulder blades and head (if you are lying down).  Imagine that they go down as deep as you are tall–feel like your roots are digging down into the ground.
  • Take a walk.  This can be outside or just inside your home.  Focus on how your feet feel as they make contact with the ground.  If your mind wanders, that’s fine, just come back to the feeling of the feet.

One final thing to note is that our body’s range from uptight to grounded is a dial rather than an on/off switch.  Often the practice of grounding lowers us down a few degrees, and with time, we can learn to establish a calmer baseline so that stress doesn’t elevate us as much, and we can remain more consistently grounded.  This can give us some control over our instinctual responses to stress, which helps us to be calm in our interactions with others and get the rest we need to maintain good health.

** Edit – I found this rather humorous description of a “Groundhog” pose online after a friend pointed out that it was a thing.  I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this, but I found it amusing, and I think you will too: http://www.prajnayoga.net/asana-anatomy-focus/groundhog-asana/